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What Happens to Your Brain When You Stop Drinking?

It’s well-known that drinking alcohol can have physical consequences, such as causing liver damage or heart disease. However, alcohol consumption also affects the brain in many different ways, but when a person gives up alcohol for a period of time, these negative impacts can begin to correct themselves.

How Does Alcohol Affect the Brain?

While alcohol may be enjoyable for some, it's important to be aware of the risks it poses to the brain. Alcohol can change the way neurotransmitters work and alter brain chemistry. This can result in shrinkage of the hippocampus, a ​​brain structure vital to learning and memory. This is especially concerning for adolescents, since their brain is still developing, and alcohol can significantly impair learning and memory during this stage of life.

Studies have found the prefrontal volumes to be smaller in heavy drinkers. The prefrontal cortex is involved in decision-making, planning, and impulse control. Without a mature prefrontal cortex, young people are less able to weigh negative consequences and inhibit impulsive behavior like binge drinking, which directly impacts the developing frontal lobes.

How Does Drinking Alcohol Impact Mental Health?

Drinking alcohol can also have a number of negative effects on mental health, and can cause anxiety and depression, or exacerbate previous existing symptoms. Alcohol and mental health disorders can quickly turn into a cyclical problem. Alcohol temporarily numbs feelings of anxiety and depression, but in the long-term makes them much worse. It may cause a person to feel the need to drink any time they feel anxious or depressed in order to achieve momentary relief. 

man with head in hands

Alcohol is a depressant, but by increasing the dopamine levels in your brain, alcohol tricks you into thinking that it's actually making you feel good. The result is that you keep drinking to get a greater dopamine release, but at the same time you're altering other brain chemicals that are enhancing feelings of depression.

When alcohol changes the brain’s chemistry, the brain adapts. For example, the brain will reduce the production of dopamine if the alcohol is artificially recreating the effects of dopamine.

Mental Benefits of Quitting Alcohol

Fortunately, quitting drinking has been shown to improve mental health in a number of ways. These changes lead to an overall improvement in mental well-being, including reduced anxiety levels, improved moods, and reduced withdrawal symptoms. 

After going a period of time without drinking, your brain structure will also begin to repair itself, and chemical levels will stabilize. The sooner you stop drinking, the easier it will be for your brain to start correcting itself. 

Here are a few key improvements the brain undergoes when you stop drinking alcohol. 

1. Repaired Frontal Lobe

The frontal lobe of the brain, responsible for many critical functions including reasoning, behavior control, memory, and motor function, becomes damaged when you engage in heavy drinking. This can result in issues such as memory loss, or inability to focus. 

Over time, new cell growth will begin to repair this damage that will improve your memory and ability to make rational decisions.

2. Dopamine Levels Stabilize

Alcohol use overloads the brain with dopamine, causing you to build up a tolerance to alcohol so that more alcohol is required to achieve the same level of dopamine. 

When you first quit drinking, the lack of dopamine and diminished receptors can lead to feelings of sadness and hopelessness. But over time, your brain will begin to normalize dopamine levels, as well as your brain’s response to the chemical without the intrusion of alcohol. 

3. Increased Serotonin Production

Prolonged heavy drinking can result in a decrease in the production of serotonin, a chemical that increases feelings of happiness and well-being. This can be a contributing factor to the depression that one feels as a result of drinking. Fortunately, when you quit drinking, serotonin production will start to return to normal, and you won’t have to live in a cycle of drinking in order to feel better. 

4. Increase in the Volume of the Hippocampus

When you quit drinking, the actual structure of the brain itself starts to recover. New cell growth will begin to take place in the hippocampus, causing an increase in its volume, which can aid in memory performance. 

How Quickly Does the Brain Heal After Stopping Drinking? 

The brain has a remarkable ability to repair itself, but it can take time. How long it takes for your mind to recover after over-consumption of alcohol depends on the severity of the damage done. The sooner you stop drinking, the quicker it will take your brain to recover. 

However, positive changes can start to present themselves in as little as 14 days alcohol-free, including the improvements listed above. 

How Can I know if I'm Drinking Too Much? 

Many people have different views on how much alcohol is “too much.” Unhealthy drinking habits can develop gradually, which can make it difficult to identify a drinking problem. 

Here are a few warning signs that you need to cut back on your alcohol consumption:

  • You use alcohol to self-medicate.

  • You’ve become secretive about your drinking.

  • You continue to drink despite negative consequences.

  • Loved ones have noticed changes in your mood or behavior.

  • You get defensive when confronted about your drinking habits.

Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder

If you recognize the damage that alcohol has inflicted on your mind, body, and life, and you want to stop drinking, we are here for you. 

At Paramount Recovery Center, we offer treatment in a realistic environment that provides you with practical life skills to help you move forward in life. Learn more about our addiction treatment program, or contact our addiction recovery counselors today. 

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